Homeowners take proactive steps to reduce wildfire risk on their forestland

Brent Steinhart understands fire danger – he’s a volunteer with Spokane County Fire District 4. So when he looked at the dense forest surrounding his home, he knew he had to act quickly to reduce his vulnerability to a wildfire.

Steinhart and his wife, Corey, worked with a Washington State Department of Natural Resources forester in the spring of 2017 to identify 1.5 acres of high-risk forest on their land. The Steinharts own 20 acres in the wildland urban interface – areas in our state where human development, such as homes and businesses, meet natural areas, including forests and grasslands.

Private residents own a significant amount of forestland in Washington, and problems like bark beetles, drought, and overly dense forests all contribute to a forest health crisis that’s making it easier for severe wildfires to spread. That’s why DNR works with small forest landowners to reduce wildfire risk on their property, including through forest health treatments like thinning and wood chipping.

Before and after photos of the Steinharts’ property.
Before and after photos of the Steinharts’ property.

The Steinharts, both in their 50s, decided on a do-it-yourself forest thinning project. The area they tackled had tall ponderosa and lodgepole pine, crowded with smaller pine and Douglas fir. To dispose of the excess vegetation and smaller trees, they used some for firewood and chipped the rest. Through this work, they significantly reduced their ladder fuels – the vegetation tall enough to spread flames into the upper crowns of large trees. In all, the project cost DNR $1,260 in incentives.

DNR forester Randy Burke said homeowners can save time by hiring a private contractor to do the work, “but many homeowners enjoy their sweat-equity investment on their property.” The project makes the forest healthier, too, because many Eastern Washington forests thrive when they’re less dense.

The couple’s work was so successful that they treated 2 more acres, finishing in the fall of 2018, and were planning a third project.

“By thinning and allowing those trees to not compete, your forest can be healthier, and it looks really nice when you’re done,” Brent said.

Supporting small forest landowners in improving forest health on their property, and in turn reducing the risk of wildfires, is a key part of DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, as well as the agency’s Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan.

“Solving our forest health crisis will take an all-lands, all-hands approach, including work by federal and state governments, tribes, timber companies and homeowners who live on forestland,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who oversees DNR. “I am optimistic that we are up for the challenge. Across our state, we are already seeing a willingness by so many people to work together and get this done.”

‘You can’t neglect it’

Brenda and Ryan Nash's home and the view from their property
Brenda and Ryan Nash’s Hidden Valley home sits on 20 acres in Kittitas County. (Washington State Department of Natural Resources photo)

Brenda and Ryan Nash are taking a similar approach to their wooded property in the Hidden Valley area outside of Cle Elem. The couple moved there in July 2016 from Western Washington, and their 20 acres needed a lot of work to reduce wildfire risk – most of their forest was overgrown.

“That first year, we had a crew come in … and work for four weeks to help (fire-prepare) the entire property,” Brenda Nash said. “It was a great starting point. There was still a lot left to do. There’s still a lot of thinning of the trees we need to do. There’s still debris on the ground that needs to be burned or chipped.”

Complicating matters, much of the couple’s property is on a steep slope – so steep that they couldn’t use mechanical thinning or chipping equipment, she said.

“It really is all manual work that had to happen – very grueling manual labor up and down this pitch,” she said, adding that a controlled burn might be done later because it would be the most efficient way to reduce dense brush, while allowing the larger trees on her property to thrive.

Nash and her husband want to do more than reduce fire risk. They want to restore habitat for elk, and a controlled burn (also called prescribed fire), would open up their forest, increasing elk habitat and regenerating plants that elk eat on the forest floor.

“To retain healthy trees and wildlife, it’s a give and take. It’s a balance,” she said. “You can’t just let nature take over, or else other things happen that affect the wildlife and certainly wildfire if it ever came through.”

The Nashes plan to live in their Central Washington home for the rest of their lives and pass it on to their children.

“It’s our way of life,” Nash said. “It’s not for everyone – living in an area like this, it comes with a lot of responsibility. You can’t just neglect it. But it’s worth it.”

If you live in a wooded area and want to learn more about wildfire preparedness on your property, visit DNR’s Prepare for Wildfire webpage.

Brenda Nash talks to three people on her property
Brenda Nash, from left, speaks last fall with Rose Shriner of the Kittitas County Conservation District, Kara Karboski of the Washington Prescribed Fire Council, and Roslyn property owner Chris Martin about her land during a prescribed fire Training Exchange (TREX) event. Nash allowed the trainees to assess her property as part of a learning exercise. (Washington State Department of Natural Resources photo)